promise I’ll be just as fabulous

I did Facebook’s “year in review” thing. I did it because it kept showing up on my feed and because I saw my friends doing it, and somewhere in his secret volcano fortress Mark Zuckerberg rubbed his fingertips lightly together and hissed “Eeeeeeeeeeexcellent.”

I also did it because I was curious to see what it would toss up. What does Facebook consider “my year”? What does it think is noteworthy? I didn’t know, at the time, how the specific algorithms involved specifically operated. So I just hit yeah sure and waited to see what it spit back at me.

Makeup selfies, mostly. So… that was 2014 for me. Okay.

(It sort of was)

But the other thing I noticed – which is old news by now – was that a huge amount of what I did and said on Facebook in 2014 – much of which I consider pretty important – just wasn’t there at all. What I was looking at was not 2014 for me (apart from the makeup selfies). Algorithms took my own vaguely defined narrative regarding what I understood as my year and imposed their own meaning on it before presenting it to me as if I should be pleased.

Some of my friends seemed to be. My reaction was mostly “…huh.”

Which is a far cry from Eric Meyer, for whom Facebook selected a photo of his dead daughter as the cover for his year in review, which – for obvious reasons – was enormously painful to him. The term he used in reference to this is “algorithmic cruelty”, which has since picked up a lot of usage because it works really well as a descriptor. But I’m specifically interested in why this happened at all, not necessarily in terms of these particular algorithms or even algorithms in general but more in terms of why we do these things. Why we feel the need to have them. Facebook probably wouldn’t have done this at all if they didn’t perceive that it was something people might be inclined to do anyway.

I think a lot of us do some kind of wrap-up or review at the end of every year. We want to do some kind of stock-taking. I think there are a number of emotional and psychological reasons for this, and I don’t think they’re just the individual self engaging in monologue, but I think primary among these reasons is the desire to solidify a self-narrative, to understand who we are and what this year has made us, and where we might go next in the new one. Which is obviously extremely arbitrary storytelling – we’re never as coherent and self-consistent as we like to pretend we are. Self-narratives may not be false, but they’re always biased, and they’re always massive oversimplifications.

Our stories don’t always make a whole lot of sense. We don’t like to admit that to anyone, least of all ourselves.

The end of a year marks a point of wholeness, a roundness, at which this kind of storytelling seems appropriate.

The thing is, when we do these kinds of self-motivated years-in-review, we’re the ones setting the terms, and we’re the ones who want to understand ourselves. We get to decide what’s important and what’s worthy of being included. We have the power to curate our own histories.

That power is not equally distributed. The question of who has the right and the ability to tell their own stories is profoundly shaped by social power and inequality, and this is true on both micro and macro levels. The personal histories of individuals are stolen and erased by the same processes that do the same to entire cultures. The question is always who gets to tell their own stories and why, but it’s also who doesn’t, and who’s preventing them from doing so.

This isn’t just about algorithms being thoughtlessly cruel, having the problems that algorithms have an enormous amount of the time. This is about something powerful – Facebook – claiming that power in order to tell us a story about ourselves, the terms of which we don’t really control. I’m not saying this is actively oppressive in the same way as what I described above. I am saying it’s problematic, and it’s worth paying attention to in this sense.

Powerful institutions deciding the terms under which our lives are arranged and understood isn’t new. What sets this apart, in my opinion, is that it’s a story Facebook is telling to you, and to your friends. Here, this is what you look like. This is who you are.

I haven’t begun to tease out all the implications of this, but I think there are a lot of them and I think they’re troubling. Storytelling of this kind – this is who I am, this is what I’m about, this is where I’ve been and where I’m going – is historically profoundly communal. Generally, even constrained by the storytelling medium in which we work, we have a fair amount of control over what that story looks like. In some cases we have more than we did before. Not in this case.

So. Yeah.

Man, my makeup was awesome this year.

Sarah is self-absorbed on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

image courtesy of Carmen Jost

There are moments when we’re taught to mistrust ourselves, to regard our own feelings with high suspicion, where we learn that we are not our own friends or companions, where we do not lead ourselves well through the world but instead point the way toward traps, pits, quicksand. We learn to view ourselves as enemies.

Don’t pretend this isn’t true of some more than others.


Calm down.

Immediately followed by Don’t take it so personally.

Immediately followed by It’s not serious.

This is not how it starts but this is how it continues, forever.


Reality is a platform on which we’re given to stand. This starts very early, and it starts early because how we live and move and are in the world is guided by how we orient ourselves to this concept. How we know what is. How we know what we trust. How we know what’s legitimate. How we know what’s Okay, so we know how to be Okay, and how we know when we are not Okay.

This is someone else’s idea of Okay and we’re taught not to question where it came from.

These are stories. These are the first stories. These are the oldest stories. I don’t know how many times I have to say this: These are stories and they are real but they aren’t true. On some level we know this, but you don’t trust yourself, do you? So you don’t trust that feeling. You are not Okay for having it. You are not Okay.

So there’s “real” and there’s Okay and later when we find holes and gaps in those walls and doors through which we might walk, when we find the membrane is more porous than we were told, we have no idea what to do. It’s terrifying. It’s shameful. It’s the lie of an enemy, and this is how we learn to hate our own stories.

This is how we learn to hate ourselves.


Calm down.

Immediately followed by Don’t be so sensitive.

Immediately followed by It’s all in your head.

If you don’t think words are real you have never encountered words.


I can’t tell you how many years I spent looking for the button that would turn this off. It’s been thirty years and I still haven’t found it.

We’re taught not to trust buttons. We’re taught that we should have them.


Calm down.

Immediately followed by It’s not that big a deal.

Immediately followed by It was just a joke.


What you need to understand is that the fetishization of the real is older than the digital. Okay, we know that. So what you need to understand is that the fetishization of the real is about more than what we can see, more than what we can hold in our hands.

The fetishization of the real is how we learn to make enemies of ourselves. It’s how we learn to hate our own stories.


I remember I was crying over something that wasn’t real, and I was trying to stop crying and I was trying to explain why I was crying and I was trying to explain why I was crying to myself, and I was trying to find that button that would turn it off and I was thinking about buttons, about programming, and I said I tell stories.

This is the bug in my feature.


When we look at what we make and what we do and how we use it, when we look at the meaning we construct around those things, when we look at what we know about ourselves and where we come from, when we look at the stories we tell about those things, when we look at our myths and our legends and every silly movie, TV show, book, video game, every stupid little piece of cultural paraphernalia, when we look at everything around us, every story, and we see ourselves injured, murdered, made monstrous, made weak, made insignificant, absent, erased, the story we’re told is that we don’t matter.

The story we’re told is that we don’t exist, and we never have, and we never will.


Calm down.

Immediately followed by It’s not real.

Immediately followed by It’s just a story.


And I said I don’t have to apologize for this, and I don’t have to justify it to anyone, and I don’t have to minimize my own pain. I don’t have to explain why I love these people who are far away, and whom I might never meet, and who aren’t real. I don’t have to be suspicious of myself. I don’t have to regard myself as an enemy. I don’t have to hate my stories.

I get to tell my stories. That’s the point.


Calm down.

Fuck you.


We have always been here. We are here. We always will be.

We’re real.


Sarah tells stories on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


I should preface this by saying that I originally came out of what is generally referred to as “fandom” but I haven’t been part of one for a long time. Recently, though, I dipped a toe back into the water – specifically, the fandom around the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead – and I noticed some things I think are worth considering.

Just to set the stage, let’s pick an operational definition of “fandom” as it’s used here, drawn lazily from Wikipedia as if I were a sophomore in college desperately scraping together a term paper:

A subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom).

What I’m talking about specifically in this case is media fandom – fandom based around books, TV shows, films, games. Sometimes entire franchises of those things (ie The Walking Dead, which is a comic, a show, and a series of games). What’s worth noting is the degree to which various fandoms and fandom as a whole tends to characterize itself/themselves as a community – a tightly-knit group that shares a unique culture and can be very protective against any perceived encroachment or threat by anyone considered an outsider.

What got me thinking about this was this excellent post, which both compares and criticizes the idea of fandom as an “imagined community”:

An imagined community, as used in fan studies, emphasizes the sense of collective belonging, of a shared vocabulary, values, language – interests – that exceeds face-to-face interactions. And there’s probably no fan that hasn’t felt that way when they’ve stumbled onto a group of people who are talking about something they love in ways that they’ve been thinking or feeling about it all along. I don’t think it’s wrong to think of fandom as imagined community, but what I do think is that, in thinking of fandom as community, we kind of favor the utopian side of communities (camaraderie, friendship, passion, a sense of being in something together, you and me against the rest of the world, etc.).

This characterization of fandom as fundamentally communal in nature obscures two things: that fandom(s) are massively diverse rather than homogenous, and that fandoms are fractious and fraught with conflict, some of it extremely nasty, both across fandoms and within them.

I knew this was true when I started actively getting into TWD fandom on Tumblr (writing fanfiction, posting commentary, conversing with other fans) but I saw especially ugly examples of it in the (hella misogynist) “wars” between fans of two different female characters (Beth Greene and Carol Peletier). Things got even more out of hand when [SPOILER] Beth was shot and presumably killed in the mid-season finale and her fans launched a campaign to get her back on the show (which launched a counter-campaign, which turned into people yelling abuse at each other everywhere, which turned into wild accusations getting thrown around regarding behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, which turned into… whatever, you don’t even want to know). But I noticed this especially because it was an example of intense and very personal conflict within the kind of thing that’s often characterized as a single cohesive group.

Which is why I think, as the post says, that the idea of fandom as a “contact zone” is far more useful, and which is defined by Mary Pratt as:

Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.

The clashing and grappling is especially important here, as is the idea of asymmetrical power, especially when one considers the implications of identity and social inequality in this kind of social space, and the fact that dominant identities tend to become the faces of whatever group we’re talking about:

[S]ometimes when in a shared space with a lot of people who also share multiple identity labels, and where the space is often identified with (not by) those ‘affiliated identities’… members can become complacent and assume that everyone they meet – or at least everyone in that space – shares the same perspectives, values, and identities aside from the primary label which defines the space.  But: just because ‘affiliated identity’ labels may be the most visible doesn’t mean that they’re always the most common (privilege and power and popularity/social capital being what they are).

The author of the post goes on to point out that we can see these dominant identities sharpening and hardening their claim to these social spaces when they perceive that new categories of identity are encroaching on that space. The obvious contemporary example of this at the moment is what’s been happening in the gamer “community”, where a group that possesses a high degree of social power – straight white cisgender men – perceives its claim to the “gamer” identity as under attack by women, queer people, gender non-conforming people, etc. regardless of the fact that those interlopers have been there since the beginning.

What’s interesting there is that in the case of the gamer “community”, what’s truly going on is that a single group is not only laying specific claim to a particular label but, in doing so, is attempting to present the community (as they define it) as a united front by excluding everyone who doesn’t fall into their category(s) of identity.

Which is one reason why the very idea of a gamer “community” has been subject to a lot of skepticism lately.

So far I’m not saying much that the post linked above doesn’t. What I have to add is more a suggestion for future consideration than any specific claim. What I see missing from those two posts is any explicit consideration of the role capitalism plays in the establishment of these different affiliated identities and the varying degrees of social power they bear.

The “gamer” community was arguably defined in part by the game industry itself, who created the culture of a market they could then sell things to. That example is a lot more blatant than others, but I think the same processes are at work elsewhere. One could refer to the ways in which different studios and networks make use of social media in their marketing, but I think it’s at work in even more subtle ways, and I want to return to The Walking Dead as an example.

The petition that heads the campaign to bring Beth back has garnered over 50,000 signatures and has gotten press coverage in places like Forbes and Good Morning America. This is great for fans of Beth, but it’s also great for the show and the network, because it’s free publicity (especially given that the showrunner and producers and even actors have been eerily silent since the episode aired). As more than one person has pointed out, by appearing to kill a popular character the show has arguably not only avoided driving people away but has attracted people who previously might not have been interested. I’ve seen several of my friends say they might start watching the show simply because they want to see what all the fuss is about.

This is all very complicated, and the relationships here are difficult to untangle. So far I’m not prepared to go beyond pointing and waving at that complication and suggesting that fandom as site for conflict rather than center of cohesive community presents some opportunities for certain people, and can’t be understood in the absence of those things.

And that when we look at these groups, it would probably be wise to not assume that they all get along.

Sarah is fractious on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Note: This is half conventional Cyborgology post – if such a thing can be said to exist – and half explanation/personal apologia. It’s front-loaded with the latter. I usually assume it’s understood that when I have an opinion it’s not CYBORGOLOGY’S OPINION, all official-like, but I want to be very clear about that here for reasons that will become evident.

It seemed almost like fate, the way Vice’s tech blog Motherboard launched its new online science fiction short story magazine – somewhat ironically called Terraform – the day after nominations opened for the Nebula awards and all us SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers were bemoaning the sheer amount of reading we all had to do to even have a prayer of being able to participate in the process.

Here’s why:

Science fiction is everywhere. It may be our most popular, and populist, of genres. We can’t seem to get enough of it in the multiplexes and on Netflix. But, weirdly, there’s a distinct dearth of science fiction in its purest, arguably its original, form—short fiction—in the environment to which it seems best-suited. The internet.

That’s the first paragraph from Terraform’s manifesto regarding why they exist (the rest of the text proceeded along the same lines until it was edited). It made people angry. Specifically, it made SFF short story writers and editors angry, and a dogpile ensued both on Twitter and in the comments, in which – full disclosure – I participated. I did so because I felt very strongly about why Terraform claimed to be doing what they were doing. A lot of us felt strongly. The reasons for this might not be evident to someone who isn’t embedded in the SFF community, and I want to talk about them, in part because I feel like they should be articulated but also because I think the whole thing serves as an interesting and instructive example of what happens not only when someone blunders into a community and proceeds to violate a bunch of its norms but, in fact, when someone blunders into a community and doesn’t seem to realize they’ve done so.

And it’s an example of how someone powerful can perpetuate harmful processes without knowing or intending to do so.

The most immediate problem with Terraform’s statement above is that it just flat-out isn’t true. Short SFF is going through a renaissance at the moment, and has been for a while – and the primary reason is the explosion of online short SFF fiction markets. Not only is there not a “dearth” of short SFF online, there is more of it – and more amazing stuff within it – than one could ever hope to keep up with. Yes, I’m obviously biased. I’m also right, in a literally quantifiable sense. And it was puzzling that Terraform appeared to not be aware of what it would have taken ten seconds and Google to know.

More than that, though, people were offended, and it’s this reaction that I think might have been most puzzling to outsiders. Why should a magazine feel obligated to acknowledge its “competitors”? Why would that be something they would want to do? As one commenter argued:

I would suggest that successful businesses entering new markets do not start their press releases by acknowledging the fine products already put out by their competitors who are already servicing their audience just fine. They start by exaggerating and saying there is a great need for their prduct(sic) and that they are going to change the landscape.

The problem there is something of which the commenter is apparently not aware, and Terraform also seemed to not know: Launching a fiction magazine – especially in genre – is not like launching a news magazine or even a topical blog. “Competition” in the capitalist free-market sense simply doesn’t apply. This is especially true in SFF in 2014, because of the tight-knit relationships this kind of digital publishing facilitates. Magazines don’t compete; they cross-promote. Editors send writers to each other and spotlight writers at other magazines. When nominations open for the Nebulas and Hugos, we all recommend stories to each other, from everywhere. Fiction writing is, by its very nature, a communal enterprise, and the bonds that hold that community together can be powerful, and governed by powerful norms. Terraform may have thought they were simply indicating that there was a need for what they were offering, but to the rest of us, to essentially state that reality wasn’t as it is was bizarre. It was bizarre, and to some it felt like a fairly pointed snub on the part of a newcomer.

One might not like that we got angry, but to be surprised is frankly naive. This is how communities work.

There’s an additional point of normative misunderstanding that I think played a role. The same commenter I quoted above articulated it pretty nicely:

The entirety of the people who are pissed off are the authors (and those that publish them). This announcement is for the readers, not the writers.

Okay, two things.

A) In the SFF genre, the line between “fan-reader” and “author” – and indeed “editor” – is so thin and porous as to be nonexistent. Most of us wear multiple hats. Authors frequently edit and vice-versa. And we all read. We are all fans. This is part of why:

B) The launch of a fiction magazine is going by its very nature to be for authors just as much as people who purely read. Whether or not Terraform intended or wanted this is irrelevant. Because we are hungry, and we are frequently poor. We don’t want to keep newcomers out; we want as many of them as possible, because we like to be paid. The more paying markets there are, the more money there is to go around. So we’re always watching, and when a new zine launches we’ll notice within seconds. Terraform launched with no submission guidelines and no stated pay rates, which – to us – is so strange as to be almost unthinkable. Many if not most new zines lead with guidelines and pay rates before they ever officially open their doors or announce the featured authors in their first issue.

This is because they want to attract authors. They want submissions. And they’re participating in the dynamics of a community. It’s a subtle but important signal to everyone else: We’re here, we’re engaged, we want to play. By neglecting to do this, Terraform’s introduction gave the impression to many of us that not only were they not engaged, but they weren’t aware we were here at all.

(Incidentally, Terraform has since announced they’ll pay twenty cents a word. That is staggeringly good. Had they led with that, I think we would have been willing to forgive them almost anything.)

But here’s the final – and to my mind, the most important and the most damaging – problem, and it’s one that exists entirely because there is so much short SFF online right now.

SFF has historically been very white, very straight, very cisgender, very Western, and very male. For a long time it’s been an uncomfortable place to be if you’re a member of any marginalized group. Not only has the overall atmosphere been toxic to a significant degree, but the doors have been solidly closed to marginalized authors. What the explosion of digital short SFF markets has done – in part – is start to change that. The barriers to entry for a professional-paying (at least six cents a word, as defined by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) short fiction market are by no means nonexistent, but they’re significantly lower than they would necessarily be if we were relying on print, and the reach of those markets is tremendously greater.

We’re using this advantage, and we’re using it actively. The majority of the professional digital short fiction markets have at least claimed that it’s their goal to find and promote marginalized authors, and many have done so. Strange Horizons – one of the oldest – has been doing it forever. Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Apex, Tor.com, Shimmer, Nightmare, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres, Inscription, Uncanny, all of those have either explicitly called for diverse fiction in their guidelines or have gained a reputation for publishing and promoting the same. All of them depend on community support to exist. That interpersonal dependence has made some fantastic things possible. Uncanny happened because of a Kickstarter campaign. Strange Horizons just finished up their annual fund drive. Crossed Genres’s fantastic anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History was also a successful Kickstarter project, as was The Future Fire‘s We See a Different Frontier, which is an anthology of postcolonial speculative fiction. Women Destroy Science Fiction! was a Kickstarter project, as were Women Destroy Fantasy! and Women Destroy Horror! (Queers Destroy Science Fiction! will follow next year). Clarkesworld just successfully launched its Kickstarted project to bring more translated stories into its issues in an effort to give exposure to SFF writers working outside of the English-speaking West. The Book Smugglers, hitherto a review site, has opened its doors to fiction submissions and is seeking to make things as diverse as possible.

We’ve all worked very, very hard for this. And there’s been resistance. It’s been a fight, and sometimes the fight has been ugly. But things are opening up. The field is richer. Amazing stories are being told that, prior to digital short fiction markets, probably would never have found an audience. This is why we do what we do.

Terraform came on the scene with a first issue full of white writers, no indication of community engagement or statement regarding diversity, suggested none of that work matters, and announced that they were here to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

What people need to understand is that for many of us, this isn’t about our precious feelings being hurt or having a new kid come to play in our sandbox uninvited. This is about erasure, and processes of erasure that go way back and cut very deep. I’m not saying Terraform intended to do that. But that’s what they did.

They’ve since altered their opening statement – though not the first paragraph – and have said that because of how they’re positioned they hope to bring short SFnal fiction to readers who otherwise wouldn’t see it. That’s great. We need that so much. But that’s not what they said.

Do I seem emotional? I am. Not gonna pretend not to be. This matters to me, to us, for reasons that go far beyond injured pride, and that’s why we reacted the way we did. No, Terraform was and is under no obligation to adhere to community norms. But there are social consequences for not doing so, and we saw that.

I’m glad Terraform is here (TWENTY. CENTS. A. WORD.). I mean that. I’m really looking forward to seeing where it goes. I hope I see some friendly names appearing there (I already have, and that makes me happy). I hope to maybe even show up there myself someday. But there are things they need to do. They’ve already done some of them.

I’ll be watching to see what they do next.

Oh, and if you like short SFF fiction? If you maybe even think you might but have yet to try it? Any of those links up there. Any of them at all. You won’t be sorry. Strange, terrible, and beautiful worlds await.

Sarah is science fictional on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry



The blow-up over Samaritans Radar is a couple of weeks old now, but I still want to say something about it, because – watching stuff about it spin past on my Twitter timeline – some things struck me.

For those who don’t know, Samaritans Radar is/was a Twitter app – which makes use of the Twitter API – that allowed one to monitor someone’s Twitter profile for any tweets that suggested plans or intentions to commit suicide, and would accordingly send notifications to the person monitoring. It’s since been yanked while the developers hopefully sit in a corner and think about what they’ve done, but the intention was – ostensibly – to enable family, friends, and other loved ones to identify when someone was in trouble in situations where it might otherwise be difficult to tell and to reach out to that person, offering help and counsel.

All well and good, except for how no.

Almost immediately people began pointing out the obvious problems – and the obvious dangers – of such a thing. Among other things, as Adrian Short (the author of several posts about the app, as well as the Change.org petition demanding Twitter shut the app down) pointed out, there are major technical problems inherent in identifying something as situational as someone’s unique expression of their mental and emotional state via algorithmic classification. Essentially, he writes, it doesn’t work, it can’t currently work, and the developers never should have released it at all for those reasons alone:

There’s little evidence that Samaritans and Jam have really taken the trouble to think about these issues other than at the most superficial level. And so when they start thinking about tweaking or redesigning Samaritans Radar, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s opt-in or opt-out, whether you think it’s ethical or whether your lawyers say it’s lawful. It doesn’t actually matter what I or anyone else thinks about what you’re trying to achieve. The thing just won’t actually function unless you do the really hard work to solve a series of hard problems in a new domain. And if you can manage that, the first thing you should be doing is publishing research papers not sending press releases and launching apps. As it stands, the core classifier in Samaritans Radar is cargo cult technology: a black box that purports to do something useful but actually does very little at all. Build it into any app you like: it still won’t work.

But something else that emerged as the app attracted increasing levels of attention was what specifically much of the media seemed to focus on as the primary issue, at least at first. The center of the narrative was often the potential abuse of privacy, given that the app made it possible to surveil someone’s activity on Twitter without their knowledge, and drew potentially sensitive inferences from it (and some even insisted it was worth the violation of that privacy). Clearly the privacy aspect is a problem – a big one – but I saw a number of people concerned with mental health and safe spaces pointing out another huge flaw, one that a lot of others were ignoring in favor of privacy concerns.

Given that it highlights specific points of vulnerability in already vulnerably people, Samaritans Radar is/was explicitly, potentially lethally dangerous.

One of the ugliest things that we’ve seen recently as a part of harassment campaigns are repeated attempts to get targets to injure or kill themselves, especially if those targets are already struggling with the pain from other attacks. Given this, Samaritan’s Radar was ready-made for this kind of organized assault, and it both made an existing unsafe space even less safe and highlighted ways in which it was already fraught with hazard.

Others have pointed this out already. I’m not saying anything new there. What I want to highlight are two things that stand out to me.

First, the developers of the app claim to have created the app specifically to save lives. This isn’t something that was created to do something completely unrelated to mental health that just so happened to contain a dangerous side function. This was an intentional foray into a particular arena that ended up doing the exact opposite of what it was allegedly intended to do. This places it in company with things like Apple’s Health app (and other related apps), which was created to assist in efforts to maintain good health but which in fact might be worse than useless for many people.

Second, what follows from the first point is the conclusion that the app’s developers simply didn’t realize that this would be a problem. Which is a pretty glaring omission of the imagination. Many people – especially people entrenched in social justice activism – noted that the potential for targeted harassment should have been obvious to anyone who thought about it for more than a minute.

But this shouldn’t be surprising, and it shouldn’t be surprising that more than one news story on the app initially played down or neglected this aspect. Given who’s disproportionately likely to experience this kind of targeted harassment, it would have been fairly remarkable – and heartening – if it had leaped to the top of the narrative from the start.

As with the Health app, what I think this comes down to is that you can’t design for what you don’t see, what you don’t know, what it doesn’t occur to you to imagine. People who aren’t members of marginalized groups are far less likely to be aware of how harassment works in digital spaces, and will therefore be ill-equipped to fight it. The developers of Samaritans Radar were aware that people could express powerfully negative emotion on Twitter. They didn’t realize how that emotion could be – and is – weaponized.

So no, this isn’t a new story. It’s just another example of why the stakes of “diversity” in the tech industry are far higher than the kind of preening self-congratulation that we see from companies like Apple and Google. We are, again, talking about the safety of actual human beings.

Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

image by Anna Piovani
image by Anna Piovani

I don’t remember exactly when I got into my first argument online. I don’t remember who I was fighting with or what it was about. I was probably angry. I don’t ever remember being afraid.


I’ve written before about how the process of saying things online was liberatory. That the expression of self in this space was the very cliche of spreading new wings. That’s not a radical statement. It’s not revolutionary. A lot of us were the weird kids – everyone is the weird kid, in one way or another, but some of us feel it so much more keenly. Some of us are cut by it. Some of us are cut literally. Do you remember how it was then? The word floating around was that awkward, uncooperative bodies wouldn’t matter here. We could all be beings of pure intellect and engage on the edge of some kind of new and more enlightened frontier.

And implicit in that was that when someone tried to hurt you, it wouldn’t work.

Being a child is a nearly constant process of being lied to. By adults. By each other. By ourselves.


I don’t remember exactly when someone said something that truly hurt me online. I don’t remember who it was or what they were saying. I know I got angry; I might have cried. I don’t remember ever being afraid.


For a tremendous number of us – it seems – speech is not just surface levels of political. It’s deeper than what we usually imagine by politics. It’s in the viscera. Speech is the assertion of self, of agency when all other forms of agency seem elusive and impossible to grasp. We all, all of us, regardless of whether or not we have any conscious understanding of privilege and power, have some understanding of what it means to be able to speak and to be prevented from doing so. No history class had to teach us. We fight for it, we’ll ride and die for it, and when we perceive that anyone intends to take it away from us we’ll rear up like startled cobras and strike.

Not in all places or at all times or all people in the same ways, but bear with me.

What I’ve come to see and what I’ve come to understand I was and am a part of is a raging torrent of voices, of people screaming over each other, people boring through mountains of interference to deliver a message that might be meaningful and important to someone or might be utter incoherent drivel. It can be very difficult to tell the difference and probably no one person or persons should be permitted to adjudicate. I think of an ant hill, ants crawling all over each other, intent on whatever they’re doing but also keenly aware of each other at all times.

It’s loud, is what I’m saying. I’m not sure exactly how that figures in here but it’s very loud.

Sometimes there’s one voice apart from the others, one voice marked by a very precise element of difference in tone and content, and the ants turn and as one they swarm.


I don’t remember exactly when someone I knew was threatened online. I don’t remember who it was or what it was about, or who threatened them or what they did in response if anything. I’m sure I was angry. I was probably afraid for them. But I don’t remember being afraid for myself.


I hold very firmly to the belief that a significant number of the people who write do so because, on some level, they really want attention. I want attention. I absolutely do. Obviously I want that attention to be positive, so I try to do what I do as well as I can under the assumption that, if I do well enough, positive attention will result. So far that’s generally holding true. There are always critics, but you know. That’s fine. There should be.

But I also write because I don’t know what I would do or what I would be if I didn’t. I can’t imagine not writing. I can’t imagine a world in which stories weren’t battering their way out of me, tearing literal holes in my skin. Fucking with my head in ways you wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. The point is, silence isn’t an option. Silence is terrifying. Silence is unimaginable. I have a story; I write it. I have an opinion; I write it. Once we were confined in terms of who saw these things and how many of them there were, but now sharing is a fundamental component of how we move through the world, of how we understand the disparate elements of who we are and how we live. We share. That’s how we make things a real part of all of our real stories. I imagine not doing that anymore and it feels like being locked in a very small closet.

Fear was never part of that for me. Not really. Or if it was, it was fear of rejection. Which is a real fear, legitimate and painful, but come on.



I don’t remember exactly when I first learned about stalking online. I know it hadn’t happened to me, and so far as I know it still hasn’t. I do know that it was during the initial to-catch-a-predator panic of AOL chatrooms and who-is-talking-to-your-kid-on-ICQ. I heard all about not meeting people you met online in “real life”, I heard about not going along with suggestions to perform sexual acts, I heard about all of it. It was all about kids. Just kids.

No one warned me about what would come after that all died down. I don’t think anyone warned any of us. I don’t think anyone knew.

I genuinely wonder, if we had known then, how much of the world would have cared.


When I was asked to start writing here, I was terrified, and that terror never really went away. It’s the kind of terror that’s always with me, generated by a background hum of abusive internal voices. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’ll never be able to come up with interesting things to say on that regular a basis. They don’t really like you. They’ll kick you out when they realize the mistake they made. Next Monday I’ll be writing about how this last year on Cyborgology has been for me and where I want to go in the future, what I’m excited about doing and the things about which I want to write, but the truth is that I’m scared, still, for all of those reasons.

But today is about something else.


This last year has been very instructive where fear is concerned.

I’ve watched people stalked, people threatened, people killed. Women, trans people, queer people, people of color. For speaking. For saying things. About the most innocuous stuff, on the face of it. For just being themselves. People I know, people I care for, people I don’t know at all. People I’ll never have the chance to know, because someone ripped them away from the world. I’ve seen brave, amazing people shouted down and intimidated into silence, driven into hiding, for doing something I’ve come to take for granted. I’ve seen men – some of them close to me – write it all off, insist that this is all a fluke, that it’s a few bad apples, that it’s not actually about racism or transphobia or misogyny, and I’ve wanted to grab them and shake them and scream do you even see what’s happening, do you even care about any of this, do you care about the fact that people you supposedly love are in danger. I’ve watched men speaking out against this, and that’s great and I’m glad for it, but I want to grab them and shake them and scream do you understand why you can do this, why you can laugh at them, what it means that you don’t have to be afraid.

Do you understand that we’re afraid all. the. time.

I wasn’t afraid. I’ve learned to be. A lot of us have learned to be. We’ve had very good teachers.


Over the last few months I’ve had to make some hard choices. For the first time I can remember, I’ve had to consider what I say and how I say it, not out of fear of being disliked or rejected but out of fear for my safety and the safety of my family. And the decision I’ve come to is to be silent. This is will be the last post I make on Cyborgology about this stuff. This will be the last post I make anywhere about this stuff. At least for a while.

I know I’m angry. Of that much, I’m very sure.

I’m not going to forget.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Image by Ourania
Image by Ourania

Something that’s become a bit of a refrain for me here is stories matter – in one way or another I think it’s popped up in just about everything I’ve written about. I’m sure it can come off repetitive, but there’s a reason I keep flogging that particular horse: first, it’s one of the things I hold most deeply and personally true, and second, it’s surprising to me sometimes how many people don’t actually seem to grasp it. At least not in all the situations to which it applies.

I’ve been writing a lot about games recently, you know my favorites can be found at Spielesnacks DE, and a lot of people have been talking a lot about games. It’s one of those cultural moments. For a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into much more detail than that in this post, except to say that there are intense emotions wrapped up in games and those emotions are extremely apparent right now. Someone outside this particular subculture might be baffled regarding why people are feeling things so deeply about games.

To be sure, a lot of this isn’t actually about games but about other things: social change, cultural and systemic social inequality, economics. But I don’t think you can drag games out of the equation. Why dream jackpot games? Why do they matter so much to some of it, in and of themselves? Why do we care so much? Why do I care so much?

And I think, if there’s bafflement – or even if there isn’t – we need to be clear about what games actually mean.

I first started writing about games in an academic manner in college, and what kicked me into doing so was actually Erving Goffman’s 1974 doorstopper Frame Analysis. Goffman talks about a lot more than games – Frame Analysis is obviously not a book on video games or even game studies – but what he does say about games is deeply insightful and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, still somewhat under-utilized as a set of theoretical tools among people who approach games from an academic perspective. In a 2009 paper/extended abstract, Sebastian Deterding lays out the basics of a Goffmanian approach to video games:

[We can] theorize video gaming as a “frame”, a social convention consisting of mutual expectations organizing our experience and behavior in relation to a specific type of situation. The shared “framing” of a situation is stabilized via the self-correcting interplay of attention (what “belongs to” the situation and therefore should be attended to), interpretation (what the phenomena attended to mean) and action (how to act and react appropriately in relation to the situation and meaning of what is attended to) between the participants. The “boundary” of a frame is effectively determined by the “joint focus of attention” of the participants, supported by meta-communicative cues (“brackets”) that mark the spatial and temporal beginnings and ends of the situation.

In other words, games are spatial-temporal situations in which normal “rules” by which we engage with the world are suspended and new rules put in place, depending on what all the participants agree on. Because Goffman – and Deterding – are talking about rules. Maybe not formal rules, and in the earliest forms of the play of children these rules usually aren’t formalized. But there are specific ways of engaging with the world of a game in the space of a game that are meaningful and appropriate by mutual agreement. There’s a logic, and it’s not necessarily the logic of the world outside the game.

A game is a thing. What we do in the space of a game is play. Play is an act by which reality itself is put on hold and something else is slotted into its place. We (pretty much) all play. It’s one of the first things we do as new humans. Any level of play requires some very rudimentary element of imagination – you need that in order to suspend these normal rules. And humans aren’t the only animals who play.

This is where we need to step back to 1938 and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga‘s book Homo Ludens, “Man the Player”. According to Huizinga, culture isn’t a prerequisite for play, and for the most basic forms of game. Play pre-dates culture:

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.

I have two cats, and they play all the time – I knew one of them from earliest kittenhood and watched her playing with her siblings. I’m not suggesting that kittens possess the imaginative capabilities of a human child, or that kittens have the capacity to create something that we would generally recognize as a formal game. I’m also not a cat psychologist. But I do think, when animals play, that we’re seeing a very simple form of the rule-suspension that underlies all games. The pretense of a kitten’s game, when a kitten is playing with another kitten, is I will hunt and stalk and fight you like prey or an enemy but you won’t really be either of those things. It’s not necessarily conscious. As far as we know, cats don’t possess a human level of self-awareness or self-reflection. But I look at it, and I see something familiar. I see something I used to do, as a small child. Some of my first memories.

So: stories.

We’re storytelling creatures. We engage the world through narrative; we construct stories about it and our place in it, we make sense of who we are through the establishment of a self-narrative that continues until we’re no longer cognitively capable of maintaining it, or until we die. One might argue that the moment we can tell any kind of story is the moment we become human. That stories are culture, in that stories allow for the understanding of this happened, then this happened, then that made this happen, and now here we are. And also here is where we might go. Stories allow for coherent temporal thinking and the capacity for the same is a prerequisite. Through stories, we engage ourselves, and we create meaning around everything we see.

I argue that play is one of the ways in which we first learn to tell a story. I will hunt and stalk and fight you like prey or an enemy but you won’t really be either of those things is a story. It has a beginning and an end, and they’re defined and mutually agreed upon by the participants. They contain meanings that might be subtly different from the meanings we use to move through the rest of reality. We need to understand those meanings in order for us to play the game, and within the space of the game those meanings might be reinforced, or might even change.

Games are stories. Play is the collaborative telling of a story.

Play is also a way of telling a story that we can do alone. And I think the rules of a game, while they may not be complex stories in and of themselves, can be justified through stories, and can provide a framework on which a more complicated story can rest. As Jesper Juul writes in Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, “Rules themselves create fictions”.

(Note: Juul draws a distinction between a fiction and a story, which I think is potentially useful but which I’m pretty much jettisoning here for reasons I don’t want to go into in the interest of keeping this thing under 2k words)

Let’s talk about the Atari 2600.

My husband has recently gotten into collecting and playing the classic Atari games he grew up with. I didn’t grow up with these games, so I’ve been watching this with a good deal of interest, and learning some new things about the history of a medium about which I care a great deal. One of the things that’s struck me hardest is the juxtaposition of games that are incredibly simple, visually – we might be talking about a dot moving around in relation to a bunch of other lines and dots – and don’t in fact require stories for people to play them, with the incredibly complex and detailed stories that one often finds in the manuals. Rich narratives, sometimes some pretty extensive worldbuilding. The manual for 1984’s Ballblazer contains a multi-page transcript of a supposed play-by-play, depicting the game as an intergalactic sport. The Swordquest series was packaged with actual comic books. None of this stuff is necessary to playing the game, but the games as sequences of events governed by rules encourage the creation of complex stories. They move narrative from “this because this” to “this because history of this because these people and also this and this is who you are and you need to do this because this other thing.”


When I was a kid, I had symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifested – among many other things – as highly ritualized sorting behaviors. While many of my other symptoms were painful and unpleasant, sorting was soothing to me. The orderliness, the fine motor control. I now understand these behaviors as games, after a fashion: there were rules, there was a focus of attention guided by particular logics and meanings. Over this framework, I constructed elaborate stories to justify why I was doing what I was doing, in the sense of giving the rules and the actions greater weight and meaning. It made the sorting more soothing, more pleasurable. It wasn’t necessary. But it felt deeply instinctive.

We tell stories because we can’t not. We play because we can’t not. So my point – finally – is that just as stories are a direct line to the core of who we are as human beings, games and play are much the same. Before we were human, we played. I really believe that we learned to tell stories in part from our play, that one couldn’t have happened without the other.

I have no proof of this, obviously, and I’m not formally trained as an anthropologist. But I think this is why games mean so much to us, or at least so much to some people who have formalized their relationship with games in a cultural sense, and have pinpointed games as things that saved them, that provided an escape and a sense of meaning and hope that hadn’t been there before. This is at the center of why games mean so much to me. Games are who we are, whether we’re aware of it or not.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when people care. A lot. Now we just need to figure out where we go from here.

Sarah plays on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


In truth, I didn’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to iOS8 until a post scrolled by on my Tumblr feed, which disturbed me a good deal: The new iteration of Apple’s OS included “Health”, an app that – among many other things – contains a weight tracker and a calorie counter.

And can’t be deleted.

Okay, so why is this a big deal? Pretty much all “health” apps include those features. I have one (third-party). A lot of people have one. They can be very useful. Apple sticking non-removable apps into its OS is annoying, but why would it be something worth getting up in arms over? This is where it becomes a bit difficult to explain, and where you’re likely to encounter two kinds of people (somewhat oversimplified, but go with me here). One group will react with mild bafflement. The other will immediately understand what’s at stake.

The Health app is literally dangerous, specifically to people dealing with/in recovery from eating disorders and related obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Obsessive weight tracking and calorie counting are classic symptoms. These disorders literally kill people. A lot of people. Apple’s Health app is an enabler of this behavior, a temptation to fall back into self-destructive habits. The fact that it can’t be deleted makes it worse by orders of magnitude.

So why can’t people just not use it? Why not just hide it? That’s not how obsessive-compulsive behavior works. One of the nastiest things about OCD symptoms – and one of the most difficult to understand for people who haven’t experienced them – is the fact that a brain with this kind of chemical imbalance can and will make you do things you don’t want to do. That’s what “compulsive” means. Things you know you shouldn’t do, that will hurt you. When it’s at its worst it’s almost impossible to fight, and it’s painful and frightening. I don’t deal with disordered eating, but my messed-up neurochemistry has forced me to do things I desperately didn’t want to do, things that damaged me. The very presence of this app on a device is a very real threat (from post linked above):

Whilst of course the app cannot force you to use it, it cannot be deleted, so will be present within your apps and can be a source of feelings of temptation to record numbers and of guilt and judgement for not using the app.

Apple doesn’t hate people with eating disorders. They probably weren’t thinking about people with eating disorders at all. That’s the problem.

Then this weekend another post caught my attention: The Health app doesn’t include the ability to track menstrual cycles, something that’s actually kind of important for the health of people who menstruate. Again: so? Apple thinks a number of other forms of incredibly specific tracking were important enough to include:

In case you’re wondering whether Health is only concerned with a few basics: Apple has predicted the need to input data about blood oxygen saturation, your daily molybdenum or pathogenic acid intake, cycling distance, number of times fallen and your electrodermal activity, but nothing to do with recording information about your menstrual cycle.

Again: Apple almost certainly doesn’t actively hate cisgender women, or anyone else who menstruates. They didn’t consider including a cycle tracker and then went “PFFT SCREW WOMEN”. They probably weren’t thinking about women at all.

During the design phase of this OS, half the world’s population was probably invisible. The specific needs of this half of the population were folded into an unspecified default. Which doesn’t – generally – menstruate.

I should note that – of course – third-party menstrual cycle tracking apps exist. But people have problems with these (problems I share), and it would have been nice if Apple had provided an escape from them:

There are already many apps designed for tracking periods, although many of my survey respondents mentioned that they’re too gendered (there were many complaints about colour schemes, needless ornamentation and twee language), difficult to use, too focused on conceiving, or not taking into account things that the respondents wanted to track.

Both of these problems are part of a larger design issue, and it’s one we’ve talked about before, more than once. The design of things – pretty much all things – reflects assumptions about what kind of people are going to be using the things, and how those people are going to use them. That means that design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power and domination both subtle and not. Apple didn’t consider what people with eating disorders might be dealing with; that’s ableism. Apple didn’t consider what menstruating women might need to do with a health app; that’s sexism.

The fact that the app cannot be removed is a further problem. For all intents and purposes, updating to a new OS is almost mandatory for users of Apple devices, at least eventually. Apple already has a kind of control over a device that’s a bit worrying, blurring the line between owner and user and threatening to replace one with the other. The Health app is a glimpse of a kind of well-meaning but ultimately harmful paternalist approach to design: We know what you need, what you want; we know what’s best. We don’t need to give you control over this. We know what we’re doing.

This isn’t just about failure of the imagination. This is about social power. And it’s troubling.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

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If anything halfway decent can be said to have come out of the embarrassing horror that is GamerGate, it’s that it’s generated some useful – in many cases necessary – discussions. Regarding culture and misogyny and the ways in which spaces are carefully and intentionally made hostile for certain groups of people identified as undesirable, but also in terms of consumer capitalism and the ways in which the game industry essentially created the contemporary definition of “gamer” as an identity to market to after the game industry crash of the mid-1980s (Brendan Keogh has a great summary of exactly how and why this happened).

I keep coming back to the consumer aspect of this. not because I think it’s more important than the extensive abuse and harassment of women and queer people but because something we’ve seen over and over is that some nebulous ideas of the production and reproduction of power and domination become material in our technology. We can see them in what our technology looks like and how it functions, in how we use it and who gets to use it at all. And during a conversation on Twitter – which I meant to Storify and forgot to, oops – it struck me how the ways in which consumption works in the game community are part of the processes that keep marginalized people on the periphery and maintain the primacy of certain kinds of games, thereby reinforcing the definition of what a “gamer” is.

It’s important to bear in mind here that one of the foundational elements of the “gamer” identity as it’s been defined for the last couple of decades is that of an in-group who is deeply focused on the playing, buying, and discussion of games, and that only certain games count as “real” games. The construction and maintenance of the concept of “core” games is how someone has or does not have actual cred as a gamer; if you call yourself one, be prepared to back that up with what you play – what you buy.

And when people who don’t fit this (intensely gendered) vision of “gamer” start claiming the title, you start moving the goal posts. Redraw the lines and redraw them harder. Oh, you play that? And not that? Yeeeeah, no. Women who play and love video games consistently report this kind of skeptical interrogation; what they play is suspect because of who they are, and who they are makes what they play suspect. Or they don’t love it in the right way for the right reasons (witness the phenomenon of the Fake Geek Girl).

What does this have to do with technology? Being a gamer in the sense the word has meant is expensive, you guys. Not outrageous, but sure as hell not cheap. A PS4 currently goes for about $400; an Xbox 360 somewhere between $200 to $400. PC gaming is more expensive still, running potentially into the thousands for the best of the best. Games themselves are pricy, with new titles usually priced between $30 and $60. All this means that even people who love this technology and love these games can find themselves priced out of keeping up with the latest stuff, or having it at all.

This isn’t just about consumption; it’s about conspicuous consumption. How high a priority are games for you? How much do you spend, how much of a premium do you place on getting something as soon as it’s out? These are some of the ways in which the lines are drawn and in which they’re maintained, and it’s about identity expressed as buying things.

So if you don’t have the money – or you arrange your priorities differently because it’s what makes sense – you don’t get to be on the right side of those lines.

Think about how income and wealth inequality intersects with every other kind of social inequality in existence.

The thing about all of this is that it’s in a state of transition. When I talk about being a “gamer” up there, I’m talking about it in terms of what it has meant. But all kinds of people are playing games, and they’re not playing them on PCs and consoles; they’re playing them on smartphones and tablets. Which, although they can also be expensive, tend to be a good bit less expensive when you consider how few game apps actually cost $60.

So suddenly all kinds of people who don’t fit the profile of “gamer” are playing lots of games. A lot of them are women. I mean, a lot of them are women. But they’re playing casual games. They don’t get to count, regardless of how good they are. Indie games, games that buck the AAA formula – games like Depression Quest, just to name one – are not real games. The lines are redrawn, and redrawn again.

A number of people have observed that at the core of this whole ugly mess seems to be a deep-seated anxiety on the part of the people who fit the traditional “gamer” profile regarding their own legitimacy, their very existence. I think this is correct; I think, like all hegemonic groups witnessing the end of their own hegemony, these guys are worried, even frightened. Their identity is becoming increasingly meaningless to everyone who isn’t them. They’re losing their ability to dictate the conversation around games and the playing of them. As Keogh writes:

When it was necessary for corporate interests, a ‘core gamer’ identity of young males was cultivated to buy the products of an industry scrambling to come back from the brink. To be sure, they still are. The large publishers and the major games journalism outlets are still more afraid of upsetting gamers than they are of speaking to a more diverse audience. But both have been bypassed by the emergence of creators and writers beyond the core gaming industry. Which is not to say, necessarily, that we are seeing the end of the gamer identity, but we are seeing what was only ever a small, consumer-focused subculture kicking and screaming itself into the realisation that this is all they ever were, and that videogames as a diverse ecology of cultural forms – commercial, popular, niche, personal – is moving on without them.

No one likes to face the fact that they’re not the special snowflake an industry has spent decades telling them they were. But the rest of us are richer for it.


Sarah is desperately trying to make the A List on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Earlier this week I wrote about what’s become known as GamerGate (can we please call a moratorium on affixing ‘gate’ to things? Just a personal request) wherein I compared the science fiction and fantasy community – in which I’m a writer – to the gamer community – in which I’m a consumer. I drew parallels between the two, mostly concerning the creation of an identity that begins in defiance of perceived “mainstream” culture and then becomes an identity perfectly situation to be marketed and sold to.

But there’s an important difference between the SF&F community and the gamer community that’s worth noting, because of the difficulties it reveals concerning positive change in the later: the ability of community members to participate directly in the creation and recreation of the community’s culture.

In the previous post I linked to Matthew S. Burns’s discussion of gamers as “consumer-kings”, whose gamer identity is centered around the consumption – often conspicuous – of games. In other words, what we’re essentially dealing with, at least where the mainstream is concerned, is consumer capitalism masquerading as an actively agentic identity (“by gamers for gamers”, “power to the players”). This isn’t to say that there’s no agency at work, nor that there’s no culture mutually created by “community members”, merely that the culturally situated identity of “gamer” has been almost entirely co-opted by the game industry as a marketing tool. The identity itself is sold as part of the products: consume this and be that.

Which plays a tremendous role in the persistence of the toxic elements of gamer culture: when you’ve been told you’re special and important because of the identity you’re being sold, you’ll perceive a change in anything that props up that structure as profoundly threatening.

But there’s more, and this is where we have to talk about science fiction and fantasy.

I’ve been writing and publishing SF&F for about five years now. In those five years I’ve witnessed powerful pushes forward on the part of people seeking to make the genre welcoming and inclusive for women, people of color, trans* people, and other marginalized identities. I’ve seen big Nebula wins, big Hugo wins, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Ancillary Justice and Women Destroying Science Fiction and Long Hidden, several WisCons, battles fought and won over the right of people to not be harassed or assaulted at conventions, and countless other victories that I’m remiss in listing. But I’ve also seen endless ugly pushback, harassment and threats, open declarations that These People Don’t Belong Here, and an almost constant background radiation of grossness. Much of which looks a great deal like what we’ve seen in gaming.

The difference is that I’ve been writing in that community. I wanted to create, and I did. I started writing, I started publishing, and more specifically, I started writing what I was writing because it was what I wanted to read, it was what I thought there wasn’t enough of. I know so many people who started writing for that reason. It hasn’t been without difficulty, and marginalized people run into massive pushback and resistance way too frequently, but it can be done, and successful books like I listed above do happen.

More importantly, it can be done with much more practical ease than what has been suggested I do: dropping everything and making a game. The point is that if I don’t like SF&F culture, it’s quite conceivable – though no means simple or easy – for me to actively contribute to the changing of that culture through my own creation.

I could sit down tomorrow and write a novel in three months or so, and very possibly sell it in a few months more. I am not going to sit down and make an AAA video game. No one person can do that: they take entire development teams years and millions of dollars, and require the backing of large publishers to market and distribute. In other words, the barriers to entry are rather high. Considerably higher still if you’re not a white cisgender man.

But I’m talking about the mainstream market. What about the indie scene? Because there is an indie game scene, some would say a flourishing one. Those games tend to be smaller enterprises, things that can feasibly be made by a small group of people, or even one person working alone.

The problem is that – as Mattie Brice has observed – the indie scene is potentially subject to the same market forces as the AAA part of the industry. Further, that once you move out into where a lot of the really weird and interesting stuff happens, where identity is being questioned and examined, engagement is being rethought, and the very idea of play is being played with – Twine games, other text-based games, minimalist games – you’re talking about the margins of the community, at least as far as what people generally think of when they think “gamer”.

The people who are doing the potentially genuinely culture-altering stuff are not the consumer-kings, nor are they the people presenting the kings with their sumptuous feasts and thereby their identities as kings.

The consumer-kings consume. They don’t create. They don’t change. They have power, but what kind of power? From where? To do what?

This isn’t to say there’s no creative or transformative work, or that there’s no overlap anywhere, or that this all isn’t somewhat oversimplified. It’s simply to point out that in these two communities there exist processes of cultural production and reproduction in which power works very differently, and participation has a very different potential and actual meaning. Which means that the profiles for what’s possible and reasonable regarding cultural change – and the timeframe under which it’s likely to occur – look quite different as well.

Despite the ugliness I’ve seen, I’m very optimistic about the SF&F community. I think amazing things lie ahead.

I wish I could say the same for video games.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry